Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited

In late 1949, as George Orwell was living through what would be the final months of his life, he addressed himself to the matter of completing yet another of the book reviews that had formed so large a part of his career as a writer. The book was Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. As Orwell prepared his essay, he recorded in his notebook a conclusion that neatly articulates the conundrum with which all those with an interest in this most troubling of writers must reckon. “Waugh”, wrote Orwell, “is about as good a novelist as one can be (ie as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.”

The opinions that Orwell had in mind were Waugh’s snobbery and Catholicism (Orwell considered them his “driving forces”). However, these were related to an array of additional views and characteristics that, collectively, have bequeathed to us a picture of Waugh in which he appears possessed of an almost comic – and certainly bewildering – aptitude for unpleasantness.

Hilaire Belloc believed that Waugh had “the devil in him”. Diana Cooper said that he was “a bad man for whom an angel is struggling”. Martha Gellhorn thought he was “a small and very ugly turd”. Barbara Skelton found him “rude to everybody”. Even his friend Christopher Sykes commented that, later in life, Waugh was “more arrogant, more quarrelsome . . . invariably unpleasant.”

Waugh knew he had this reputation, seldom claimed he didn’t deserve it (he once remarked to Nancy Mitford that people ought to imagine how awful he would be were he not a Catholic), and often found pleasure and security in perpetuating it. Here he is in a letter to Laura Herbert, whom he would eventually wed: “You might think about me a bit & whether . . . you could bear the idea of marrying me. I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve . . . I have always tried to be nice to you and you may have got it into your head that I am nice really, but that is all rot. It is only to you & for you. I am jealous & impatient – but there is no point in going into a whole list of my vices.”

Candour can be winning, and nobody who is acquainted with Waugh’s character could reasonably deny that he was capable of exhibiting all of these qualities. But there is also an element of self-mythology at work here. Waugh needed his vices, cultivated them, was as proud of them as he was ashamed. As Philip Eade puts it in this brisk and entertaining new biography, they were both “defences against the boredom and despair of everyday life” and the outward signs of a hatred of the sentimental and demonstrative.

They were also occlusive of the kinder and more generous facets of Waugh’s personality. Or so Eade argues. He quotes many of Waugh’s friends and acquaintances to support this proposition. Paul Moor, a young American fan who visited the great novelist for three days in 1949 (during the course of which he was relentlessly mocked for his nationality), considered his host “an essentially kind man”. Graham Greene wrote: “What I loved most in him was that rare quality that he would only say the kind things behind one’s back”. Patrick Kinross recalled that “his affections were constant and he was the staunchest of friends . . . His friendship was not only a solace and a stimulus, but a challenge.”

Eade also draws on the letters Waugh wrote (unavailable to previous biographers) to his great unrequited love, Teresa “Baby” Jungman, in order to reveal a “deeply romantic and tender side to his character that counters the popularly held view of his heartlessness”.

These revelations are not convincing. Waugh could be tender and romantic, it is true. But the tenderness and the romanticism were of a peculiarly selfish, smothering and demanding kind, and often laced with truculence and self-pity: Baby Jungman repeatedly had to beg Waugh “to be generous enough not to feel bitterly about me”.

Where Eade is more persuasive – and more interesting – is in his account of the forces that contributed to Waugh’s peculiarly fraught relationship with the question of love and friendship. The account takes us back to Waugh’s childhood, which was marked by a debilitating absence of love from his father, the publisher and literary journalist Arthur Waugh.

Arthur adored his eldest son, Alec, to the point of deification, but was uninterested in Evelyn – so much so that Evelyn was driven as a boy to say to his mother that “I am lacking in love”. This helped to shape a childhood and adolescence in which he felt perpetually isolated from his family, and sought refuge in the macabre, in thoughts of suicide (an option he would return to throughout his early life), and in a propensity for acts of cruelty. (As an adult, he burned one of several unrequited loves with a cigarette.)

Over the course of his acutely lonely and unhappy years of education – at the Lancing School, Sussex, followed by Hertford College, Oxford, where he had numerous homosexual relationships – these traits hardened into pathologies that would bedevil Waugh’s adult life. These years involved a disastrous and loveless first marriage to Evelyn (“Shevelyn”) Gardiner, more bursts of unrequited love, various unsuccessful spells as a schoolmaster, service in the second World War, and a second marriage to Laura Herbert, with whom he had seven children.

None of the children received from their father anything approaching proper affection – most he regarded as an inconvenience from which to isolate himself. (We here exclude Margaret, the fourth born, with whom he had an alarming relationship that looked to others like a “love affair”.) This he did by taking himself on long holidays abroad every winter (the idea being to miss Christmas); by travelling extensively throughout the rest of the year on assorted writing and journalistic assignments; and by attempting to sequester himself in his library when at home.

Waugh’s later years, which were characterised by dramatic physical and mental decline, featured periods of madness and dependence on prescription drugs. He died of a heart attack in 1966. While all of this was taking place, and aided by his personal trinity of religion, rudeness and drink, Waugh produced many volumes of travel writing and biography, and some of the finest novels of the 20th century. Eade is not much interested in Waugh’s literary achievements (he says at the start of the book that this is not a critical biography), but the limited use he makes of his work is intelligent and illuminating.

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